Imitation of Life "1934"

This original 1934 version tells the story of two widows and their daughters. Bea, played by Claudette Colbert, and Delilah, played by Louise Beavers. Delilah knocks on Bea's door, thinking that she's found the right house for an advertised maid's job. Delilah stresses how difficult it is finding an employer who'd accept her and her daughter as part of the deal. Bea offers Delilah a job on a trial basis, but her kind demeanour quickly grows on Bea, and Delilah ends up staying permanently.

Delilah shares her family's pancake recipe with Bea, and before long, a successful business is in operation. The two of them hit the big time, and soon have an affluent lifestyles (albeit unequal - Delilah still insists on sleeping in the basement). Heartache is just around the corner, though. Delilah's daughter, Peola (played by Fredi Washington) is so pale skinned that she passes for white and rejects her mother. Peola's melancholy persona and rejection breaks Delilah's heart. Peola feels that without her mother around, she could easily join the dominant culture.

At the same time, Bea's has problems of her own to contend with, but of a different kind. Bea and her daughter, Jesse, are in love with the same man, and this can only end in disaster.

Imitation of Life caused controversy when it was released in 1934. Even today, almost 70 years later, the movie sparks discussions and debates among social commentators. Some complained that the maid stereotype played by Louise Beavers was racist, and is so politically incorrect. Think of life in America in the 30s:

1 The country was in the middle of the Great Depression 2 Civil rights movements were 30 years away 3 Racial segregation was ingrained in society 4 Film roles for African Americans were extremely limited

When you consider these points, the plot of the film makes sense. The performances by the main characters are superb. Claudette looks particularly elegant and decadent, yet she remains humble and grounded, unlike the flighty 'diva' persona of Lana Turner's character. Louise Beavers may have been restricted to playing maids, but she made the most of her part. She was the best mother Peola could have wanted. Unfortunately, Peola felt that she was the wrong mother for her.

The most beguiling character is Peola. Fredi Washington's life was something of a paradox. She was beautiful, green-eyed, straight haired and intelligent. At one point, it seemed as if Peola and Fredi's lives would merge. Fredi was encouraged to pass for white early on in her career. She refused. As such, her film roles were limited. She was far too beautiful and elegant to play maid roles, yet, as an African American actress, Hollywood didn't dare offer her romantic roles with the leading white actors. She was an actress that 30s Hollywood didn't know how to handle.

Imitation of Life is a classic movie that's worth getting.
  • Starring: Claudette Colbert, Warren William, See more
  • Director: John M. Stahl
  • Format: NTSC
  • Color: Black & White
  • Rated: NR
  • Studio: Universal Studios
  • Video Release Date: January 29, 2002
  • Run Time: 1hr 51min
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